Untethered: Notes on Transitioning to a Non-Academic Job

Transitioning from graduate school to a full-time job feels like being a mouse on the Space Station.

I’m one month into a job in a new career, at a workplace that self-describes as “corporate.” I know that eventually I’ll get the industry; eventually I’ll have enough work to fill my day and get into a groove like the mice did. Already, every day makes a little more sense, and every day another piece of my new world snaps into place. That’s one of the many things graduate school trains you to do well–to learn massive amounts of information quickly.

But for now, in the adjustment period, I find myself floating, untethered. I’m no longer connected to the world that I trained in and became an expert in, and I haven’t connected to my new profession yet, since I’m still a novice. I’m watching both from a distance. In one case, the distance is because the world failed to make room for me and so many others; in the other case the distance is temporary and part of onboarding. And keeping a foot in academia while building a (new) career in a totally different field is looking increasingly less feasible.

Last week was the annual meeting of a conference I loved going to. As an ABD researcher, I found it intellectually productive, extremely collegial, and a joy to participate in. It was one of the highlights of my academic experience, and it kept getting better every year. Even when I had to start paring back my commitments, I still made room for that conference. It was the kind of rare conference where you think this is the academy at its best; I could stay here forever.

I’d planned to go this year. But this winter, when the papers for the conference were due, I was also in the thick of a non-academic job search. At the time of the deadline for the paper, I was under consideration for three jobs and as a result had compressed my dissertation completion timeline so I’d have a complete draft by the end of that month. So I withdrew from the conference. It was heartbreaking, but in terms of priorities, I knew my energy needed to be going elsewhere.

In the end, it was good that I withdrew before booking a hotel room. Just a couple days after I withdrew, I got a call with the offer for the job I now hold. They wanted me to start as soon as possible (“ideally yesterday,” one of my interviewers put it) but I knew I needed to finish the diss, finish the quarter, and try and sneak in a break. So we settled on an April 1 start date, and the conference was the third week of April.

I decided to try and do the conference virtually: following along and participating on Twitter whenever possible. That ended up not working, since it’s not advisable to spend the workday scrolling Twitter. In the early morning, I could catch up on the conference hashtag while getting ready for work. But those were yesterday’s sessions, so I ended up haunting the conference more than participating in it. And I missed out on the most valuable thing, the networking and the in-person meetings and informal catch-ups that meant so much to me.

Maybe next year it will be easier to participate. Having adjusted to the job, I could manage it–spend lunch doing some serious engagement; send out quick responses and questions during mental breaks. I could even use some vacation time and attend the conference.

But the questions remain–why use vacation days and hard-earned pay to attend a conference in a field you’re no longer part of? (There is a large public-humanities contingent at this conference, so I’m less concerned with that question and more concerned with why I would want to spend vacation days at a conference. Much as I love it, conferences are exhausting.) What benefit would writing a paper have to my current career? You can’t really return to academia after a stint in the non-ac world, and in my current job, academic publications don’t have any value in our evaluations and metrics. Most importantly, with what time and energy would I write the paper? (If anyone is thinking but if you really loved it you’d find the time, I suggest you read this article and attend particularly to the parts about time, resources, and unpaid labor.)

Is there any space left for me in the academic world, anyway?

It’s true that my departure from academia was both abrupt and entirely voluntary. I saw the writing on the wall and wanted a different kind of life than the precarious ones offered in academia. Plus, I needed health insurance and couldn’t afford to not work after graduation, so I made my career shift with intention and joy.

At the same time, I found that everyone kind of dropped away after I notified my department that I had gotten a job. Aside from a few dear friends and my mentors, most people either didn’t mention it, immediately started making comments about how I’d “make good money now,” or chilled slightly. The department didn’t include it on their list of job placements for the year. Professors, including some on my committee, followed up their congratulations with, “But are you going to publish a book?” One of my bosses even scolded me for 45 minutes after I resigned with a month’s notice. (True story, funny now but at the time I was terrified they’d sabotage my new job). Nobody really knew what to say, a fact for which I (mostly) don’t fault them.

And other than the internet (eternal thanks, Ask a Manager) I didn’t know where to turn for advice about starting a new job or what I should expect or how to navigate a nontoxic workplace culture–all my mentors, all my colleagues were academics. Most people were excited for me, but I had very little support. That’s an issue I’m going to keep thinking about, and maybe even consult with my department about. How do programs a) face the reality that most of their grad students aren’t going to stay in academia and b) prepare them adequately for non-ac jobs and c) work to make the transition as smooth as possible? That cannot be a void entirely the responsibility of alt-ac forums to fill.

I can’t say for sure whether it was me or the academy that unclipped the harness, but there’s no ground under my feet right now. I can see new worlds and possibilities, and I feel myself moving towards them, but for now I’m floating.

One thing I know for sure, even in this transition, is that I don’t want to lose my connection to the world I came from. I figured out who I was there, I met the most amazing people, I traveled and had the privilege of reading the stories of awesome 17th-century experimenting ladies I’d never heard of. I am the thinker, writer, close reader, teacher, and listener I am today because of my experiences in this particular place and my subfield. I want to keep being an expert on awesome 17th-century experimenting ladies and Hester Pulter and Margaret Cavendish. Since I’m not in the world, I have to work harder to forge those paths and make that expertise visible for myself.

Crucially, I also don’t want to stay so tethered to academia that I hold back from my current career. I already know that my job is not one that allows for partial engagement. If I’m gong to be any good at it, I need fully engage–I want to fully engage. Instead of academic conferences, I’ll be going to industry conferences; my reading time will be for industry best practices and the subject matter expertise I’ll need in the new job. I get to keep learning as a job requirement, and that’s pretty great. Over-investment in academia, when I’m no longer an academic, could actually become a career liability. That’s not something I often see discussed in alt-ac circles, and certainly no one in academia was going to tell me that.

So where does that leave me? Here, for now. Pretty lucky, but pretty lost.

 

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Some caveats, a la Erin Bartram:

  • I work for a university in non-academic staff position. You could argue that I haven’t left academia. You could also argue more convincingly that I am just on the other side of the window looking in.
  • I chose not to become an academic (because I like a living wage and work-life balance and public humanities work) but I still think the work of research and teaching is important and try to advocate for it whenever I can. I’m lucky that my new job allows me ways of doing that.
  • I am so, so, so grateful to have a job with good pay, good benefits, excellent colleagues, and work that lets me use many of my PhD skills. I landed in the grad school of teams, and I mean that in the absolute best way. The people I work with are whip-smart, super experienced, and lovely humans.
  • And yet starting a new job, like any major transition, is a huge time of stress.
  • These are temporary feelings. I’m sure that in six months I will look back and everything will feel less urgent and pressing than it does now. That doesn’t make these feelings any less real, however.